The Celtic calendar is a compilation of pre-Christian Celtic systems of timekeeping, including the Gaulish Coligny calendar, used by Celtic countries to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals.
Continental Celtic calendar
The Gaulish Coligny calendar is possibly the oldest Celtic solar/lunar ritual calendar. It was discovered in Coligny, France, and is now on display in the Palais des Arts Gallo-Roman museum, Lyon. It dates from the end of the second century AD, when the Roman Empire imposed the use of the Julian Calendar in Roman Gaul. The calendar is made up of bronze fragments, in a single huge plate. It is inscribed in Gaulish with Latin characters and uses Roman numerals.
The Coligny Calendar is an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the moon and sun, as is the modern Gregorian calendar. However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase. The calendar uses a mathematical arrangement to keep a normal 12-month calendar in sync with the moon and keeps the whole system in sync by adding an intercalary month every 2 1⁄2 years. The Coligny calendar registers a five-year cycle of 62 lunar months, divided into a “bright” and a “dark” fortnight (or half a moon cycle) each. The months were possibly taken to begin on the new moon, and a 13th intercalary month was added every two and a half years to align the lunations with the solar year.
The astronomical format of the calendar year that the Coligny calendar represents may well be far older, as calendars are usually even more conservative than rites and cults. The date of its inception is unknown, but correspondences of Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic calendars suggest that some early form may date to Proto-Celtic times, roughly 800 BC. The Coligny calendar achieves a complex synchronisation of the solar and lunar months. Whether it does this for philosophical or practical reasons, it points to considerable degree of sophistication.
Medieval Irish and Welsh calendars
Among the Insular Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness, at Calan Gaeaf/Samhain (1 November in the modern calendar). The light half of the year started at Calan Haf/Bealtaine (1 May, modern calendar). This observance of festivals beginning the evening before the festival day is still seen in the celebrations and folkloric practices among the Gaels, such as the traditions of Oíche Shamhna (Samhain Eve) among the Irish and Oidhche Shamhna among the Scots.
Julius Caesar said in his Gallic Wars: “[the Gaulish Celts] keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.” Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving English term “fortnight” and the obsolete “se’nnight”.
The Laws of Hywel Dda (in editions surviving from the 12th and 13th centuries) make repeated references to periods of nine days (nawfed dydd), rather than the “eight nights” that make up the current word wythnos.
Native Calendar terms in the Celtic languages
Many calendrical and time-keeping terms used in the medieval and modern Celtic languages were borrowed from Latin and reflect the influence of Roman culture and Christianity on the Insular Celts. The words borrowed include the month names Januarius (Old Irish Enáir, Welsh Ionawr), Februarius (Old Irish Febra, Welsh Chwefror), Martius (Old Irish Mart, Welsh Mawrth), Aprilius (Old Irish Apréil, Welsh Ebrill), Maius (Welsh Mai), Augustus (Old Irish Auguist, Welsh Awst); the names for the days of the week, diesSolis, Lunae, Martis, Mercurii, Jovis, Veneris, Saturni; the terms septimana “week” (Breton sizun, Cornish seithum), kalendae “first day of the month” (Old Irish callann, Welsh calan, Breton kala), tempore “time” (Welsh tymor), matutina “morning” (Cornish metin), vespera “evening”, nona “noon” (Welsh nawn), and ôra “hour” (Welsh awr, Breton eur).
A number of native Celtic terms survived the adoption of the Roman/Christian calendar, however:
|Term||Proto-Celtic||Gaulish||Old/Middle Irish||Modern Irish||Scottish Gaelic||Manx||Welsh||Cornish||Breton|
|Day / 24-hour period||*latįon||lat (abbreviation, Coligny Calendar)||la(i)the||lá||là, latha||laa|
|Night||*nokWt-, *ad-akWi-(?)||(tri)nox “(3)-night, (decam)noct- “(10)-night-“||nocht, adaig||oíche||nochd, oidhche||noght, oie||noeth (in compounds), nos||neth (comp.), nos||neiz (comp.), noz|
|Week (eight nights/days)||*oktu-nokWt- / *oktu-diį-||wythnos “8-nights”||eizhteiz “8-days”|
|Fortnight||*kWenkWe-decam-nokWt-||cóicthiges “15 (days)”||coicís||cola-deug (coig latha deug “15 days”)||kegeesh||pythefnos “15 nights”||pemzektez|
|Month||*mīss-||mid (read *miđ)||mí||mí||mìos||mee||mis||mis||miz|
|Year||*bl(e)id-anī-||b[l]is (abbreviation, Coligny Calendar)||bliadain||bliain||bliadhna||blein||blwydd, blwyddyn||bledhen||bloavezh, bloaz|
|Season, Period of Time||*ammn, *ammn-stero-, *ratio-, *pritu-||amman||amm, aimser, ráithe||aimsir||àm, aimsir, ràith||imbagh, emsher||amser, pryd||amser||amzer|
|Spring||*ers-āko “end (of winter)” (alt. *uesr-āko “spring[time]”), *ues-ant-ēn-, *ro-bertiā (“torrent, inundation”)||earrach, robarta||earrach||earrach||arragh||gwanwyn, (Old Welsh) ribirthi||gwainten||reverzi (Old Breton rebirthi)|
|Autumn||*uφo-gijam-r- “under wintertime”, *kintu-gijamo “beginning of winter”, *sito-[…] “deer-“(?)||fogamur||fóghmhar, fómhar||foghar||fouyr||cynhaeaf, hydref||kydnyav/kynyav, hedra||here, diskar-amzer (“falling season”)|
|May, May Day||*kintu-samVn- (V=indeterminate vowel) “beginning of summer”||Cétamain||Cèitean||Cyntefin|
|June, Midsummer||*medio-samVn- (V=indeterminate vowel) “mid-summer”||Mithem(on)||Mehefin||Metheven||Mezeven|